India’s medicinal plants drove exploration, empires and conquest in their transformation from Ayurveda to the bedrock of the modern pharmaceutical industry
Mary-Rose Abraham: Please grab a pair of headphones if you can and that way you’ll get the full immersive audio experience. Okay, let’s get started. It’s April of 1888.
Sumit Kumar: Andrew Dalgleish’s horse is struggling on the Karakoram Pass. The ground is covered in snow and stones. Skeletons of horses litter the road.
At more than 18 thousand feet, this is the highest mountain pass on an ancient caravan route from India to China.
Dalgleish decides to take a break. He pitches a tent, and then joins his men in their tent for tea and bread.
The conversation turns to the affairs of one of the men, Dad Mahomed, a Pathan from Quetta. His reputation as a murderer precedes him.
Mahomed is over 6 feet tall, and powerfully built, and he’s bankrupt and desperate. Dalgleish begins to advise Mahomed.
“You should live within your means. Quitely. Restrain your love of hospitality,” he says.
The tent goes quiet. The Pathan says:
“We have a saying, that no man ever ruined himself by kindness to others.”
Dalgleish doesn’t notice the mood.
“Kindness is good, but within means.”
Dad Mahomed rises.
“I will be back directly.”
He leaves the tent, grabs his gun and fires at Dalgleish from outside.
Dalgleish staggers out of the tent, clutching his injured shoulder. But Mahomed isn’t done. With a sword, he hacks at Dalgleish.
More than a year after the murder, Mahomed is on the run. A British Lieutenant, Hamilton Bower, has been ordered to find him. Bower begins in Srinagar and for months, travels the northern lands.
In February 1889, he reaches the city of Kuchar in China, the site of an ancient Buddhist kingdom. It’s an oasis on the northern branch of the Silk Road. The snowy peaks of the Tian Shan mountains frame the city.
Here, a local man tells him about an ancient city nearby, built underground in the desert.
He says: “I dug at the site for buried treasure. But I found nothing. Except a book.”
“Show me the book!” Bower says.
The man goes away and returns in an hour. He carries sheets of birch bark covered in ancient Sanskrit lettering. It is held together by two wooden boards and string.
Bower buys the book and then asks the man to take him to the underground city.
The man says no. He can’t take a European there! People will kill him. Bower persists, and the man agrees, but only if they leave under the cover of darkness, at midnight.
As the sun rises, the men reach the ruins of the city. It is on the shoulders of a range of gravelly hills. A 50-foot high stupa rises out of the ground. Its sun-dried bricks and wooden beams are crumbling.
It is desolate. Time has left this spot behind.
Gayathri Vaidyanathan: So, what was written on that birch bark?
GV: Recipes, really?
MRA: Yeah, they were recipes for medicines. They were written some time between the 4th to 6th centuries by a Buddhist monk. His name is Yashomitra.
He wrote down the treatments and plant-based recipes. And then he punched a hole through the birch bark leaves and threaded them together to form sort of a small pocketbook. It has about 50 leaves.
MRA: Do you want to hear a recipe?
MRA: Okay, here’s one to improve your memory and intelligence. “Mix one pala each of ginger, Vacha, Sigru, chebulic myrobalan, long pepper, black pepper, Patha and rock salt. Boil the mixture in one prastha of ghee, together with four times that amount of goat milk.”
GV: I think I could make this! I just need to figure out some of those ingredients. Like what’s that chebulic something? And is a pala, is that like a teaspoon?
MRA: A pala is about 40 grams. So more than half of Yashomitra’s book has recipes just like this. It’s based on Ayurveda, a form of traditional Indian medicine, which goes back more than 2,000 years.
GV: Where’s this pocketbook now?
MRA: It’s kept at Oxford University. It’s named after Bower, and it’s called the Bower Manuscript.
GV: Not Yashomitra’s Manuscript, eh?
GV: And Mahomed? Whatever happens to him? Does Bower ever catch the killer?
MRA: You know what? He doesn’t. Bower’s in the wrong place. Mahomed is hundreds of miles away, all the way to the west, in Samarkand. He’s spotted in the bazaar there and then he’s arrested. And then he dies by suicide in prison.
MRA: Welcome to Scrolls and Leaves, a world history podcast featuring stories from the margins. We’re in Season 1, Trade Winds, set in the Indian Ocean World. I’m Mary-Rose Abraham.
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Okay, let’s imagine we’re in a garden. And we’re surrounded by plants: marigold, turmeric, neem, pigeonwings. Some of them have magical properties.
GV: Okay, I mean healing. There are over 7,000 medicinal plants in India! Stems, roots, fruits, bark, seeds. They make up millions of recipes like the one in the Yashomitra manuscript.
We know plants are healers, of course. But they’re also so much more. They have shaped our history. Just a few centuries ago, they drove exploration, started wars, transformed economies. Today, they are the bedrock of Big Pharma. This is Episode 6, Healing Plants.
MRA: Chapter 1: Plants as Healers
Let’s go back 4,500 years. Egyptians are building their pyramids. And on the Indian subcontinent, a civilization thrives on the banks of the Indus River and trades with kingdoms thousands of miles away.
People from the Indus Valley Civilization sail west to Mesopotamia or they walk east to China, carrying their knowledge of herbal cures.
GV: Do we have any clues about which plants or trees they’re using?
MRA: Actually we do. It’s pretty amazing. Archaeologists have dug up a few of these sites and they found clay pots containing medicinal herbs. And one of the most common ones they found is from neem. That’s a tree that belongs to the mahogany family.
Neem is still used today in India. Its leaves taste so bitter. It’s the kind of bitter that an Indian grandmother might say would wash the worms out of your stomach.
GV: Plants are so important, they are found in prayer. This is a Sanskrit mantra from the Yajur Veda, which is one of the oldest sacred texts in Hinduism.
“O mother herb, you grow and work in many hundred places with thousands of varieties and extensions. You are gifted with hundreds of abilities. We pray that you make our life free from illness and disease.”
Over millennia, this medical knowledge in the Vedas gets written down and organized. It’s passed on from teacher to student, and called Ayurveda. But one thing doesn’t change. Healing plants are always at the heart of the medicine.
Dominik Wujastyk: This is not alternative medicine.
GV: Here’s Dominik Wujastyk. He’s a renowned Sanskrit and Ayurveda scholar and a professor at the University of Alberta in Canada.
Dominik Wujastyk: Today Ayurveda is alternative medicine. But before the rise of modern medicine, Ayurveda was medicine, in India, in South Asia, Southeast Asia, Tibet. It was medicine.
MRA: More than 2,500 years ago, a prince is born in the ancient city of Lumbini. That’s in modern day Nepal. His name is Siddhartha Gautama. He leaves home and he becomes the Buddha.
After his death, his followers, who are Buddhist monks, walk along the Silk Route into Southeast Asia and China, and they’re preaching his message of compassionate love. And when they can, they’re also healing people using Indian medical knowledge
GV: Ah, that is the connection with Yashomitra, eh?
MRA: Exactly. And healing plants become a way for Buddhists to practice compassion. India’s medicine and plants travel across Asia, and vice versa. Traders and occupiers bring healing systems into India, too, over thousands of years.
Dominik Wujastyk: It’s not that there was Ayurveda 2,000 years ago and nothing in between. Doctors have been functioning all the way through history and treatises on Ayurveda have been written all the way through history and indeed have changed and adapted.
And there are new medicines and new therapies and indeed new diseases. New things happen to people and new identifications of disease entities get made. So Ayurveda has always been flexible and adaptive and has changed.
It’s been a mixture of conservatism and innovation all the way through the last 2,000 years.
GV: Today, traditional medicine remains vitally important across the world, practiced by medicine men in sub-Saharan Africa to indigenous healers near the Arctic.
In India, other than Ayurveda, there’s Unani, Siddha. They have ancient roots, strong cultural bonds and healers who treat both illnesses and a person’s general wellbeing. And plants are at the core of these medical systems.
Take my father, for example. Ever since Covid hit, he’s been using plants from Siddha, and he thinks it’ll help him. He makes an infusion daily, called kabasura kudineer. It has 15 plants. ginger, pippali, clove.
Vaidyanathan Jayaraman: Cirukancori root, akkirakaram root, mulli root, kadukkai skin, atatoti leaf, karpura valli leaf, kottam, cintil tantu, ciru tekku, nilavembu camulam, vattattiruppi root, koraik kilanku.
GV: Chapter 2: Plants as Drivers of Empire
In the Middle Ages, Europeans are craving spices: to preserve their food, to treat diseases. When the Duke of Bavaria, George the Rich, marries Jadwiga of Poland in 1475, they have a humongous wedding feast.
And to flavor it, they order hundreds of pounds each of pepper, ginger, saffron, cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg! The spices are all from the East, and they’re more expensive than the meat!
That’s because Europeans don’t know the sea route to the Indies. Only Arab merchants know it, and they’re not going to tell them. The Arabs bring the goods to Venice and Genoa, which supply the rest of Europe at sky-high prices.
The Portuguese desperately want to control the spice trade. And plants really drive their Empire.
MRA: So the Portuguese begin looking for a sea route to India. The explorer, Vasco da Gama, takes the help of an Arab Omani sailor, Ahmad Ibn Majid, to find the route. The ship arrives in Calicut on India’s southwest coast on May 21, 1498.
It’s a grand reception. The ruler, that’s the Zamorin of Calicut, famed across trading ports around the Indian Ocean world, welcomes the foreigners.
Over the next hundred years, ships sail between Calicut and Lisbon. The Portuguese are enthralled with India’s immense wealth, its exotic animals and birds.
King Manuel of Portugal commissions 26 tapestries for his palace. They show cheetahs, peacocks, camels. One even shows a ship from India unloading a unicorn.
GV: A unicorn?!
MRA: Yeah, Europeans think India has unicorns with magical healing powers.
But back in India, the Portuguese are falling sick. Listen to this description by one trader: “They have many continual fevers, which are burning and consume men’s bodies with extreme heat, whereby within four or five days, they are either fallen or dead.”
MRA: The Portuguese believe Indians have remedies. One physician is the first to really tap into this knowledge.
GV: Who is this?
MRA: His name is Garcia de Orta. You have to listen to his story. It’s really fascinating!
MRA: So this happens in the 16th century. The Portuguese Inquisition is going on, and the king and the Catholic Church are ruthless, especially against “New Christians.”
GV: New Christians. That’s people who’ve been forced to convert from Judaism to Catholicism, right?
MRA: Exactly, and de Orta is a “New Christian.” He’s a doctor, and in 1534, he decides to migrate to Portugal’s first colony in Asia. That’s Goa. And once there, he realizes that Indians have valuable medical knowledge.
So sometimes he’s paying local healers for the information, and sometimes, he’s trading for it with his knowledge of European medicine.
He collects all this material and in 1563, he publishes the first European book on Indian medicine. 59 chapters covering about 200 medicinal plants.
de Orta’s book is a hit in Europe. It’s copied into other medical texts. And by copied, I mean plagiarized.
GV: That’s not good. So what happens to de Orta eventually?
MRA: Well, de Orta has an amazing career. He perform the first recorded autopsy in India, that’s on a cholera patient. He’s also the first European to describe the symptoms of cholera, and he includes that in his book. But his life has a rather sad postscript.
de Orta dies in Goa in 1568. And then, the Inquisition catches up with his family. The authorities burn his sister, Catarina, at the stake in Lisbon for being a “secret Jew.” And they really must have been outraged at de Orta. They convict him after his death, exhume his corpse and burn it, and they throw those ashes into the Mandovi River in Goa.
GV: That’s horrible.
MRA: And as if that’s not terrible enough, most of his home and his library is burned as well, which means most copies of his book are burned up, and it’s now very rare.
GV: The hunger for India’s spices and healing plants continues into the 17th century. In 1678, the Dutch governor of Malabar, Hendrik van Rheede publishes the “Hortus Malabaricus,” the Garden of Malabar.
It is the most exhaustive catalog of Indian botanical medicine. 742 plants from the southwest coast.
van Rheede hires artists, a Latin translator and many Indians.
We know the most about one man: Itty Achuthan. He’s an Ezhava. Ezhavas generally do farm labor although some like Achuthan also practised Ayurveda.
Sumit Kumar: Itty Achuthan’s family has been practicing medicine for 2,000 years. Ezhava are considered outcastes, but this family has gained stature. Achuthan is known as the Collatt Vaidyan, and is the most famous physician on the Malabar Coast.
For Governor Hendrik van Rheede, caste doesn’t matter. He needs a local expert who will tell him everything about the glorious plants here — their names, their uses.
He first asks the Brahmins, but they don’t have much local knowledge. van Rheede then invites the Collatt Vaidyan to Cochin Fort and requests his help. And Achuthan agrees to collaborate.
They spend long hours, over the years, walking, climbing, in the fields, the forests. Dozens of helpers collect specimens of trees, shrubs, herbs, climbers, and seed-producing plants.
At the end, van Rheede asks Achuthan to pen a testimonial in the “Hortus Malabaricus.” Achuthan writes that he is from the Collatt family of vaidyas, and his contribution is from his own practical experience and his family’s manuscripts.
Those precious manuscripts, written on fragile palm leaves. Centuries of accumulated botanical knowledge.
Almost 300 years later, in 1963, two researchers visit Achuthan’s ancestral property. One is KS Manilal, a botanist who is translating the “Hortus” into English. The other is a researcher from the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, DC.
What they hear is heartbreaking.
Achuthan’s descendents have lost millennia of knowledge, quite literally. About seven years before the researchers’ visit, the manuscripts were either destroyed or thrown out.
GV: That makes the “Hortus Malabaricus” the only record of this family’s legacy.
MRA: With the “Hortus” we can see how Indian plants are slowly becoming something more than just tools to heal people. Europeans are buying knowledge from Indians and they’re taking it to Europe.
In the process, that knowledge is being divorced from the framework of traditional medicine and it’s being separated from India.
MRA: Chapter 3: Plants as Commodities
After the 1600s, the colonizers go one step further. They turn plants into commodities. They set up a global pipeline to move plant specimens to Europe.
“Green Gold.” That’s what they call plants. They become a big part of how empires make money. And it starts off with a hefty dose of appropriation.
GV: Is that a fancy way of saying “stealing”?
MRA: Sort of. That’s one way to look at it. Or maybe like taking knowledge and adapting it for their own use. Let me give you an example.
In the 1800s, cholera kills millions of people in India. And the British are ruling at this time, and their doctors learn from the Indian healers and they prescribe a concoction.
It has black pepper, calomel, which is a mineral, ginger and asafoetida, and it’s all mixed with opium or brandy or arrack , which is the local alcoholic drink.
It’s quite popular because the ingredients are so familiar.
British doctors often go to Indian markets, or the bazaars, to gather plant specimens. Let’s tag along with Samuel Brown. He’s a surgeon in Madras Presidency in British India in the 17th century. We’ve been reading up about him and here’s what we think he might have experienced during a visit to a bazaar in 1675.
Sumit Kumar: I still remember the first time I walked through the bazaar. I couldn’t get past the smells. Pungent, sweet, musty, spicy, rotten. They all seemed suspended in the hot, humid air.
After a month of visiting almost daily, I notice the smells less. But what still bothers me is the stink from the animals. Fortunately, that section of the bazaar is far from the shops selling herbs. And anyway, my assistant, the Tamil vaidya, has found a different entrance far away from the animals.
He accompanies me on every visit. The market is always crowded. The merchants shout over one another. “I have the best black pepper,” one always yells. But the vaidya whispers in my ear that his pepper is sub-par.
He introduces me to three or four traders he trusts. These men procure plants from outside Madras. With his help, I learn the Tamil names, their applications and how to prepare them. I take the plants home and dry them. Many are used to treat fever. I also have remedies for smallpox, dysentery, and poisoning.
I buy in bulk. Some are for my own practice. But most are for my colleague in London. I have already sent him hundreds of dried plants.
GV: So Brown’s assistant, who is that?
MRA: Yeah, we don’t really know who that is. He’s a local vaidya and Brown never credits him in his writings.
GV: Okay. And what about that “colleague in London” he sends stuff to?
MRA: Well that person we do know. His name is James Petiver. And around 1685, he opens an apothecary — that’s like a pharmacy — under the sign of the white cross in Aldersgate, in London. The address is infamous.
Merchants, physicians, planters, ships’ captains and other contacts around the world send him specimens there. They’re sending plants, dried seeds, saplings, seashells, even animal skins.
He’s learning their medicinal properties, and contributing that to the Royal Society, which is Britain’s national academy of sciences.
Pratik Chakrabarti: So he is as much a druggist, was preparing and selling these drugs.
MRA: That’s Pratik Chakrabarti, a professor at the Center for History of Science, Technology and Medicine at the University of Manchester in the UK. He studies the history of Indian medicine.
Pratik Chakrabarti: But he’s also very much an important part of the Royal Society because he’s not only selling the drugs, but he’s also walking into the Royal Society and telling them, look, I have found this new cure. And what kind of new cures are being experimented upon in the whole world, and I’m presenting to them as a new knowledge.
So one part of his role is the commerce and the bringing of items of drugs and trade. The other is the knowledge that he brings to the Royal Society.
MRA: So science and trade are linked. Here’s Petiver writing in a journal of the Royal Society about a root from the East that he finds useful for epileptic and convulsive diseases. He writes — and I’m going to paraphrase here because it’s in old English:
“We need to understand such medicines, that we can grow them and supply them to poor people at cheaper prices. And that way, us merchants can also make a profit by trading in a new commodity.”
GV: Around this time, the British set up a global supply chain for the green trade. They establish botanical gardens in their colonies. These are factories for exporting plants, in St Vincent in the West Indies, Singapore, Cape Town, Sydney, Kandy in Sri Lanka.
And the first in India is the Royal Botanic Garden, set up in 1787 in Calcutta. The Calcutta garden becomes the largest supplier of tropical plants to British colonies, and to gardens around the world.
And there’s actually another interesting story here. The Calcutta garden is run by a doctor, William Roxburgh, and he commissions a series of intricate miniature paintings of plants.
MRA: Oh, how many drawings are we talking about?
GV: More than 2,500. And these are stunning. Drawings and watercolors show the tiniest detail. And these aren’t just art. They’re scientific documents because there are scribbles and annotations on the margins by botanists over two centuries.
MRA: And do we know who drew them?
GV: Yeah, sort of. We know there are two Indian artists, but they don’t sign the art and Roxburgh never records their names. But we do know how much they’re paid since Roxburgh keeps exact notes on that.
MR: Wait, that’s weird. He doesn’t record their names, but he records how much he’s paying them?
GV: Yeah, yeah. They get 3 rupees per painting.
MRA: Yikes, that’s kinda low. And Roxburgh? What’s he getting paid?
GV: 1,500 rupees a month.
MRA: Chapter 4: Agents of Conquest
We’ve been talking about plants as healers, as drivers of empire, as commodities. In the 19th century, they become agents of conquest. Not of territory, but of economic systems.
With advances in chemistry, European pharmacists start transforming plants. They convert them into medicine — pills.
The first intentional drug is morphine in 1804. A German apothecary’s assistant isolates it from opium. About 20 years later, the pharmaceutical company, Merck, begins selling it.
And a major market for all these new drugs are the colonies.
GV: How does that happen? I mean, I know one of the biggest opium-growing regions in the world is the Indian subcontinent. So how do they come to sell medicines back to the same place they came from?
MRA: Yeah, it’s a really gradual process. So in the case of the British, it takes a century and a half.
From the 1700 onwards, Europeans project themselves as having a superior knowledge system. So the Brits bring their hospitals and their forms of medicine to their colonies, paving the way for sales of their drugs.
I mean, don’t get me wrong — the drugs work and they save lives — but it’s also a business.
Here again is Pratik on how their hospitals in India change their treatment for feverish patients.
Pratik Chakrabarti: If they had intermittent fevers earlier, they use at least 10 varieties of herbs or parts of plants that local experts suggested. Once they had quinine as a biochemical extract from the cinchona bark, they prescribed quinine as the only form of medicine.
MRA: The use of these types of medicine snowballs.
Pratik Chakrabarti: Increasingly in these hospitals, they started using what is known as Western medicine, and large-scale importation of Western drugs started, and Western medical companies made huge profits, selling and sending these products to the colonies.
So one of the reasons why we had a huge biomedical revolution of large-scale medical pharmaceutical companies developing in Europe, Germany and Britain in the 19th century.
GV: And today, so many of our drugs come from tropical medicinal plants. To give you a sense of scale, here are some numbers. More than 7,000. That’s the number of species of healing plants on the subcontinent.
MRA: 25 percent. The fraction of modern medicines derived from plants all over the world.
GV: Here’s Annamma Spudich. She’s a cell and molecular biologist who left her science lab at Stanford to explore traditional medical knowledge systems in India.
Annamma Spudich: Some of the major drugs that we use today at least 50 of them starting with aspirin, codeine, ipecac, you know, and the malaria drug artemisinin and all have come from plant medicines, which belong to ancient cultures.
GV: She says a lot of tropical plants have healing properties because of the weather. They synthesize small molecules …
Annamma Spudich: … that are probably intended for repelling insects. Or for attracting, you know, bees or for various reasons, tropical plants are very powerful and they make these small compounds for their own purposes.
But of course, it turns out what it does to insects or to bees or whatever also has properties in, in the human physiology. And so that is why tropical plants have been the source of many, many medicines that are in use today.
MRA: We’ve seen that plants have so many avatars. They are healers, of course. But they have also driven empires, they have been traded as commodities, and they have fueled the rise of the modern pharmaceutical industry around the world.
GV: Somehow, to me, this sort of stinks, this appropriation of knowledge I’d call it.
MRA: Well, we do have life-saving drugs as a result. Here’s Dominik Wujastyk. We met him before.
Dominik Wujastyk: The ability to synthesize a drug chemically so that you don’t have to just sort of squeeze it squeeze the juice out of a tree, but you can actually make it in using an industrial process that has made meds important medicines like aspirin available to everybody in the world. One wouldn’t want to lose that process.
GV: But I’d also argue that something priceless is lost when plants become pills, the knowledge of traditional healers who collect plants in very specific ways and deploy them to treat a person holistically — not just their body or disease, but their way of living.
Healers like Ashtavaidyan Chirattamon Narayanan Moos. Some years ago, Annamma met him in Kerala, and he took her into his garden.
Annamma Spudich: He showed me three different plants side by side. And he plucked leaves from three of them, and he said to me, smell them. And I do, but one had a very different smell than the other two.
And he said, You know, this is the medicine. The other two are related plants, but are not medicines. So the accuracy of the identification of traditional medicine. And he also told me that there are medicines that have to be plucked, collected at a certain time.
GV: What amazing knowledge about plants that only a healer would have. This is the complexity we stand to lose.
MRA: Thanks for listening. I’m Mary-Rose Abraham.
GV: and I’m Gayathri Vaidyanathan.
MRA: Next time on Scrolls & Leaves … What does a shipwreck off the coast of Sri Lanka have to do with science fiction master Arthur C. Clarke? Tune in next time to find out!
GV: Our sound designer is …
Nikhil Nagaraj: Nikhil Nagaraj
GV: The storyteller is …
Sumit Kumar: Sumit Kumar
GV: You were listening to Scrolls & Leaves, in collaboration with the Archives at the National Centre for Biological Sciences.
MRA: Our thanks to David Arnold, Pratik Chakrabarti, Hariramamurthi G, Sanjeev Jain …
GV: … Annamma Spudich, Dominik Wujastyk, and Ines Zupanov.
Thanks to our episode supporters, IndiaBioscience, DBT/Wellcome Trust India Alliance and Deepa Agashe of NCBS.
MRA: For more information and past episodes, visit scrollsandleaves.com, and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. You can follow us on Twitter at scrollsleaves or on Instagram at scrollsandleaves, or like us on Facebook. Thanks for listening!
Listen to Episode 6 Healing Plants here